Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Sermon for November 16, 2014
Living in the Light: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
There was once a church that was very afraid. It was a new church... a mission church founded by a very influential preacher. This preacher, after having been mistreated in one town, moved to their city. It was an important, metropolitan trading center. In this city, known for wild, debaucherous, public religious celebrations, this preacher found a group of people who were excited to hear his message about the living God. Despite being a different ethnic and religious background than the preacher, they trusted him. And, they joined together and became a church. They became a community of mutual support. They worshiped and prayed together. And, they waited for the Lord.
But, something happened. Their new teacher and friend was run out of town. I don't really know why. Some accounts say that people who disagreed with him went to the authorities to try to get him in trouble for some kind of sedition. Others say that there were riots and accusations of disturbing the peace. Either way, their beloved leader was forced to leave town. They were new to the faith. They had relied on him. They had so many questions and it seemed like they had developed more than a few enemies in their short time as a religious community. They were a small, persecuted church. When I say persecuted, I mean actually persecuted.
These days, when we hear about persecution of Christians, at least in this country, we aren't really hearing about persecution. We are hearing about some group of Christians being asked to remember that not everyone believes like they do and being asked to respect others' right to believe differently. That is not persecution. That is pluralism and pluralism is a good thing. No. This little church was actually being persecuted. They were a religious minority in a theocratic society where people were often required by law to follow certain religious beliefs. People who failed to follow the state-sanctioned religious activities were often assumed to be dangers to the government. This church, as believers in the living God, would not have practiced the State religion. So, they would have been treated with suspicion. It was not good to be on the government's bad side. They were afraid.
Though the preacher was now many miles away in another town, he seemed to have heard of the struggles of the small, fearful community. He had not forgotten them. He prayed for them. And, he wanted to share his love and to offer them comfort. He wanted to remind them of God's love and to remind them that they were responsible for caring for one another. He wanted to remind them that even as they were persecuted, even as they waited for the in-breaking of the empire of heaven, that they were not lost... that God did not set them aside to face wrath, but had offered them a chance at a new kind of life through Jesus. The preacher had found hope in Jesus. He wanted to make sure that this small, persecuted church did not lose that hope. He wasn't able to travel back to the church, either because he was ill or because he was still persona non grata in the city. Since he couldn't travel, he wrote them a letter. 1 Thessalonians is that letter and the Apostle Paul was that preacher. The ancient church thought the advice was good enough that they passed it around to other churches. These other churches found hope in these words to the Thessalonians. I think we can find hope here, too.
Last week, we learned about a parable Jesus told to inspire and teach his disciples about waiting. As I stated last week, waiting has long been understood as a hallmark of Christianity. The Jews who first followed Jesus had been waiting for the Messiah who would defeat those who oppressed Israel. This type of theology, often called apocalyptic, arose in Judaism during a time of great strife and suffering, the time of the Babylonian exile. As the people struggled, many believed that only God could deliver them from the evil that surrounded them. Apocalypticism is, at its' heart, a hope that God will break into history to restore justice and goodness to those who have been destroyed by the powers and the principalities of the world. For Jesus' followers, he became that radical in-breaking of God, though not in a way that most people expected. His resurrection became a potent symbol of the power of light and life to overcome darkness and death. It was a symbol powerful enough that not only Jews, the original apocalyptics, found hope in it, but also Gentiles, people who would have been wholly unfamiliar with the ancient Jewish concept of Messiah.
The disciples and Paul, all Jews, carried this Gospel, this good news, that death would not have the final say beyond the bounds of their religious and ethnic community. They traveled across ancient Rome, preaching in Jewish synagogues and Gentile market places, and told people about Jesus. In their stories of healing, compassion, and life, people from all manner of religious backgrounds found hope, including the people of Thessalonica. People believed. They began to wait for Jesus' return to finish the renewal of this world that he began during his ministry. As many of us learned last week, it is hard to wait. And, Jesus took a lot longer in coming back than most of them expected, especially Paul, who thought Jesus' return was imminent.
As they waited, a few things happened, some of which are recorded in Paul's letters to various churches. In some places, arguments erupted in their communities over right teaching and practice. In other places, people could not agree whether or not one had to become Jewish in order to be a follower of Jesus. In Thessalonica, people were persecuted for their beliefs by the broader community. And, also, while they waited for Jesus' return, some of their friends died. People whom they loved and who they knew loved Jesus, would not see Christ's return and the broader community grieved for them. The dead had waited so faithfully. Could it be that they would not see the fullness of God's reign of compassion and love? It was these two questions that Paul addressed in his letter.
It can be hard to wait, especially if the waiting takes longer than you expect and things don't happen that you don't expect to happen. Paul seemed to know that. He had been waiting himself. He knew that part of his role was to help people develop a concept of God that sustained them through the waiting. He did this by recommending some specific behaviors. He reminded people to stay awake and alert, for the return could happen at any moment, like a thief in the night or like the sudden onset of labor pains. He reminded people to live lives that reflected God's holiness, that is to care for one another, practice self-control, and exploit no one. But, Paul didn't just want to make this letter a list of do's and don'ts. He wanted to remind people of their hope.
He did so by using powerful images of light and dark. Throughout Hebrew scripture, the light is used to signify God. In the broader Pagan culture in which these Gentile converts had been raised, it was common for a broad range of religions to understand the world as a struggle between good, represented by the light, and evil, represented by darkness. And, on a practical level, in a world with no electricity, the darkness held great danger for the average person. The dark places of their world were home to bandits, wild animals, and fierce terrain. With the exception of the Song of Songs, when darkness is mentioned in the Bible, it is a frightening, bewildering thing. When these people grow fearful of the future, Paul reminds them that they will not be lost in the dark. No, they are children of the light and children of the day. They reflected the very essence of the Divine. As such, they would not be lost as they wait. For they will be able to see clearly through the power of their faith in Christ. When the world seems dark, they carry the very light of day with them, so they need not be afraid.
And, what is more, the faith, hope, and love that they have learned through faith will protect them when they feel most vulnerable. He offered them this beautiful metaphor, saying, "Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation." Notice that, even though these metaphors may seem militaristic, the armor he mentions is all defensive. It is for protection of oneself, not for aggression against another. He didn't say, "We will beat down the sinners with the Hammer of Scripture and the Sword of Righteousness." No. He said our faith, hope, and love will protect us, even as we are persecuted... even as we wait... even as the ones we love die. The light of God shines through us and in us and will protect us. He told his friends that God did not destine them for wrath, even as they were surrounded by persecution. No, they would be bound up in faith, hope, and love and they would be saved.
There is something else wonderful about this Scripture. Even as Paul exhorted people to stay awake and be alert to the ever-present possibility of Christ's return, he still left some space for the sleepy among us to receive God's grace. Towards the end of this section of Scripture, he said that salvation is for all people, those who are awake and those who are asleep. Now, it is possible that when he said asleep, he was referring to those who had died. But, it is not exactly clear that that is what he meant. He has typically not used that metaphor in this letter. If that is true, here he is, offering yet one more piece of hope to the frightened believers. Waiting is hard. Even if you fall asleep, God still means good for you. You still have a place in the light. Even if your hope starts to wane, God's love for you does not. You are still a child of the light and you will still be saved.
I bet that there are a lot of times that we as a church begin to worry. We look at dwindling numbers and cracking plaster and we become afraid. We see a culture around us that has less and less use for organized religion, and we become afraid. We see the young people in our town moving away or staying and struggling all the way, and we become afraid. Just because we aren't being persecuted like the Thessalonians, doesn't mean that we do not worry about our future and we don't wait for a sign of the in-breaking of God. When we grow afraid, I wonder if this letter from Paul can remind us of our hope. It can remind us of the great protection that faith and love can provide. And, I hope that it can remind us of the calling we have to support one another. Because Paul's final word in this section isn't just about hope coming from beyond us. It is about hope coming from within us. Paul said, "Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing." As we wait, as we build together with God, we also have the responsibility to show God's love to our neighbors, both in this church and beyond these walls. We can't do all of this waiting on our own. As children of the light, we must find a way to encourage one another. When we stand together, our light shines far brighter than when we stand alone. And, we need all the light we can get to make it through the dark.
Works consulted by Pastor Chrissy in writing this sermon
Karoline Lewis' Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=210
C. Clifton Black's Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11:
Amy L. B. Peeler's Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2109
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.